NFL Starters Most Likely to Be Cut Before the NFL Draft
The initial wave of roster cuts and free-agent signings has passed, but there are more to come. As teams get a clearer picture of their salary-cap space and how they must shape their rosters for the future, some players have to be cut.
In some cases, the cut is a cap casualty: Aging stars with massive cap hits fall victim as teams can no longer afford their contracts while simultaneously building for the future. Alternatively, some players become expendable as new coaching and front office staffs push their team in a new direction.
The final percentage of late cuts are players who simply do not warrant their cap hit, regardless of team cap space or team identity. Some contracts are just bad.
Let's take a look at a handful of upcoming potential cuts as we delve into the second week of free agency and approach the NFL draft in late April.
Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers are in cap hell.
With a league-low $1.8 million in cap space, they do not have enough money to sign a full draft class. Per Spotrac, the Bucs' seven picks this year are projected to run them roughly $10 million. They could package a few of those to move up in the draft and select fewer players, but their first-rounder alone will cost them more than $5 million in 2019 and put them over the cap limit.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, there is only one clear way to clear enough space to comfortably sign a full draft class: Franchise cornerstone Gerald McCoy has to be cut.
The defensive tackle will account for $13 million on the cap if he remains on the roster, but he can be cut to free up all $13 million without a dead cap penalty. Without McCoy on the roster, the Bucs would have almost $15 million in available cap space to sign their draft class.
Cutting McCoy is much more about his cap hit and Tampa Bay's current state as a team than it is McCoy's level of play. He missed the Pro Bowl in 2019 for the first time since 2011 but still managed to pick up six sacks, six tackles for loss and 21 quarterback hits. He is still an above-average player and impact defender who would generate interest on the market.
Additionally, the timing of this cut works out for Tampa Bay given its draft position. The Buccaneers hold the fifth overall pick and should be able to land one of the top interior defensive linemen.
Alabama's Quinnen Williams might be a pipe dream outside the top three, but Houston's Ed Oliver should be there for the taking.
Oliver is an explosive and disruptive defensive tackle who was miscast as a 0-technique in Houston's defensive scheme. The Bucs could immediately slide Oliver into the 3-tech role to make up for McCoy's departure. Adding either player, while cutting $13 million, would be a big win as the team prepares for the future.
Joe Haden, Pittsburgh Steelers
Similar to the Buccaneers' situation with Gerald McCoy, the Steelers need to cut Joe Haden to clear enough cap space for their upcoming draft class.
Heading into the weekend, they only had about $8 million in cap space, but that number shrank with the signing of linebacker Mark Barron. He signed a two-year, $12 million deal that will likely put his 2019 cap hit somewhere between $5 and $6 million.
However, Pittsburgh's 10-pick draft class will cost approximately $8 million, depending on how many of those picks it keeps. The Steelers don't have the money to sign their draft class without making a serious roster cut.
Cornerback Joe Haden is the easy answer.
He played well in 2018, rocking Football Outsiders' 24th-best 56 percent success rate among qualifying cornerbacks, edging out Jalen Ramsey and Kyle Fuller. He also notched two interceptions, making him the only Steeler last season to grab more than one. However, it's not feasible for him to remain on the roster with a $11.9 million cap hit.
Releasing Haden would incur a $1.9 million dead-cap penalty, but that would still net the Steelers $10 million in cap space. Those savings would be enough to sign their draft class without any cap-limit stress. Pittsburgh probably doesn't want to cut Haden, but there isn't much of a choice.
Darron Lee, New York Jets
With the signing of linebacker C.J. Mosley, Darron Lee's roster spot in New York is in jeopardy.
Lee has failed to live up to his first-round draft pedigree; his awareness and reactions are lacking. In three seasons, Lee never showed skill development as a linebacker and was especially lacking in coverage—until last season, when he finally recorded his first three NFL interceptions. Still, his development in 2018 was negligible.
On top of lackluster play, Lee was also suspended at the end of 2018 for breaking the league's banned substance policy. The four-game suspension effectively ended Lee's season and sent him into the 2019 offseason with a sour final impression.
Cutting Lee will only save the Jets about $1.5 million on the cap, but his services are no longer needed. New head coach Adam Gase is known for moving on from players in a heartbeat if they do not mesh with him, so Lee is a good candidate to be a typical "new coach, new era" cut.
Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
Jordan Howard's time is up in Chicago. Despite a fantastic rookie season in 2016, with over five yards per carry and 1,600 yards from scrimmage, Howard has gotten worse with each passing season. With a 3.7-yard-per-carry average in 2018, Howard hit rock-bottom.
The Bears were reportedly shopping Howard during the week of the NFL Scouting Combine. Nothing came of the reported trade talks, but Chicago's openness about moving him is telling.
Additionally, the Bears signed free-agent running back Mike Davis to a two-year, $6 million deal that gives him a $2 million cap hit this year, nearly the same as Howard's. Davis is a similar back in that both want to run downhill, which may suggest that Chicago is preparing to move on from Howard.
Parting with Howard would not be a money issue, either. This is a talent issue. Howard's roughly $2 million cap hit means little to a Bears team with just over $18 million in cap space and no first- or second-round picks.
The Bears have fallen out of infatuation with Howard, whose style of running does not mesh with second-year head coach Matt Nagy's spread offense. If Chicago cannot find a trade partner soon, Howard is a good candidate to be cut.
A.J. Klein, New Orleans Saints
Over the past few years, the Saints have owned a surplus of mediocre linebackers—consistently fielding linebackers who were not particularly impactful while not clearly detriments. 2018 signing Demario Davis is the exception, but the notion largely rings true.
Former Panther A.J. Klein is one of that mediocre bunch. Klein is a functional linebacker who won't often botch his assignments completely but seldom makes impact plays. He recorded seven tackles for loss in 2018, which is not a poor number, but isn't indicative of a disruptive player. Klein's seven tackles for loss were tied for 88th in the league and was only one more than former Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander, who played six games in 2018.
As such, Klein could be cut to make room for one of the few key free agents left such as pass-rushers Justin Houston and Clay Matthews or tight end Jared Cook.
Klein has a $6 million cap hit in 2019 but can be cut for a $2.4 million dead-cap penalty. The move would save $3.6 million for the Saints, boosting their available cap space to over $20 million.
The Saints may be done in free agency and may not need the cap room, but Klein serves little value with Davis, Alex Anzalone and Craig Robertson all rostered. Klein should be the first to go if the Saints scrape up some cash for one last big signing.
Barkevious Mingo, Seattle Seahawks
It is still a mystery how Barkevious Mingo, a notable 2013 draft bust, somehow managed to start a career-high 14 games in 2018. While true that Seattle was desperate for help on the edge, playing Mingo for over 50 percent of the team's defensive snaps as an edge-rusher and linebacker hybrid was a new level of desperation.
Out of 517 defensive snaps, Mingo sacked the quarterback just once in 2018. He also only accounted for three tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and a single pass defended. As has been the case for his entire career, Mingo was unproductive as a pass-rusher and provided little value anywhere else on defense.
If kept on the roster for 2019, Mingo will account for a hair below $6 million on the cap. Conversely, he could be cut for only $1.1 million in dead-cap penalties. With more than $21 million in cap space already available, Seattle does not necessarily need the money, but it needs Mingo's lack of production even less.